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Reflections on 25 Years of Ethnography in CSCW

  • IBM Almaden Research Center, United States


In this article we focus attention on ethnography’s place in CSCW by reflecting on how ethnography in the context of CSCW has contributed to our understanding of the sociality and materiality of work and by exploring how the notion of the ‘field site’ as a construct in ethnography provides new ways of conceptualizing ‘work’ that extends beyond the workplace. We argue that the well known challenges of drawing design implications from ethnographic research have led to useful strategies for tightly coupling ethnography and design. We also offer some thoughts on recent controversies over what constitutes useful and proper ethnographic research in the context of CSCW. Finally, we argue that as the temporal and spatial horizons of inquiry have expanded, along with new domains of collaborative activity, ethnography continues to provide invaluable perspectives.
Reections on 25 Years of Ethnography in CSCW
Jeanette Blomberg
& Helena Karasti
IBM Research, San Jose, CA, USA (E-mail:;
University of Oulu,
Oulu, Finland;
Luleå University of Technology, Luleå, Sweden (E-mail: helena.karasti@oulu.)
Abstract. In this article we focus attention on ethnographys place in CSCW by reecting on how
ethnography in the context of CSCW has contributed to our understanding of the sociality and
materiality of work and by exploring how the notion of the eld siteas a construct in ethnography
provides new ways of conceptualizing workthat extends beyond the workplace. We argue that the
well known challenges of drawing design implications from ethnographic research have led to useful
strategies for tightly coupling ethnography and design. We also offer some thoughts on recent
controversies over what constitutes useful and proper ethnographic research in the context of CSCW.
Finally, we argue that as the temporal and spatial horizons of inquiry have expanded, along with new
domains of collaborative activity, ethnography continues to provide invaluable perspectives.
Key words: anthropology, critical studies, CSCW, connecting ethnography and design, constructing
the eld site, ethnomethodology, multi-sited ethnography, sociality and materiality of work, work
practice, workplace studies
1. Introduction
The place of ethnography in CSCW has become rather well established, while at the
same time it continues to spark lively debates about ethnographyscontributionto
CSCW; including its applicability given the expanded framing of CSCW beyond the
workplace, its uncertain articulation with design, and its properrendering. In this
article we begin by reecting on the contribution ethnography has made to our
understanding of collaborative activityits sociality and materiality. We then go on
to offer some new ways of conceptualizing the eld sitethat acknowledge the
researchersroleinconstructingthesiteof inquiry. We then argue that design in the
context of CSCW is perhaps best enabled through strategies that inextricably tie
ethnography and design. Finally we address some recent controversies that question
ethnographys value to design and argue that CSCW benets from multiple framings
of the ethnographic endeavor.
Our aim is not to provide a comprehensive review of ethnography in CSCW
for this would require more space than we have been given, particularly since
ethnographic research is either directly or indirectly implicated in a vast number
of CSCW writings. We also have chosen not to provide a detailed description of
ethnography, its sensibilities, and methodologies. Instead we direct the reader to
others who have offered such descriptions (Agar 1996;Hammersleyand
Atkinson 1995; Hughes et al. 1994b; Blomberg et al. 1993; Blomberg and
Computer Supported Cooperative Work (2013) 22:373423 © Springer Science+Business
Media Dordrecht 2013
DOI 10.1007/s10606-012-9183-1
Burrell 2012; Button and Sharrock 2009; Crabtree 2003; Crabtree et al. 2012;
Randall and Rounceeld 2007). However, we thought it would be useful to offer
a few words about ethnography as it has been normatively described for those
less familiar with the approach.
2. A word about ethnography
Ethnography has its historical roots in anthropology, but today it is an approach
found in most all of the traditional and applied social sciences. Within the eld of
anthropology, ethnography developed as a way to explore the everyday realities
of people living in small-scale, non-Western societies. As ethnography has
broadened its domain to include the study of industrialized societies some of the
implicit assumptions about non-Western societies (e.g. that they are bounded,
closed, and somewhat static) have been challenged and new techniques and
perspectives have been developed and incorporated into anthropological and
ethnographic inquiry. At its foundation ethnography relies on the ability of people
to make sense out of what is going on through participation in social life and is
guided by a few basic principles. These principles include studying phenomena in
their natural settings, taking a holistic view, providing a descriptive understand-
ing, and taking a membersperspective (Blomberg et al. 1993; Blomberg and
Burrell 2012; Blomberg and Karasti 2012).
Ethnography is anchored in the underlying assumption that to gain an
understanding of a world you must encounter it rsthand. As such, ethnographic
studies always include gathering information in the settings in which the activities
of interest naturallyoccur. Related to the emphasis on natural settings is the
view that activities must be understood within the larger context in which they
occur. This is sometimes referred to as holism which holds that studying an
activity in isolation, without reference to the other activities with which it is
connected in time and space, can result in limited and sometimes misleading
understandings of that activity. First and foremost ethnography is concerned with
providing an analytic account of events and activities as they occur, without
attempting to evaluate the efcacy of peoples practices. These descriptive under-
standings however enable the possibility of more interventionist agendas. Finally,
ethnography is committed to understanding the world from the perspective of the
people studied, describing their activities in terms relevant and meaningful to them.
In this way ethnographers are interested in the ways people categorize their world
and in the specic language people use in interaction.
This traditional and normative view of ethnography has been challenged in
relation to critical developments in the social sciences which have explored the
social shaping of scientic knowledge (Harding 1993; Knorr-Cetina 1981); the
unarticulated assumptions informing the otheringof people from non-Western
societies (Hastrup 1996; Fabian 1983; Strathern 1987); the crisis of representation
that challenges the authority of the ethnographic voice (Clifford 1988; Clifford
374 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fischer 1986); and the reexivity of the
ethnographers positioning vis-á-vis her relation to the development of
ethnographic knowledge (Woolgar 1988; Bourdieu 1992). These challenges have
come from a number of fronts, most signicantly from the subjectsof
ethnographic inquiry who increasingly are able to read ethnographic accounts
(Said 1978) and from feminist scholars who have seen in many ethnographic
accounts a biasoriginating from the particular experiences of the ethnographer
(Harding 1986; Smith 1987; Wolf 1992; Yanagisako and Delaney 1995). In
addition, social studies of science have shown more broadly how scientic
knowledge production is shaped by the larger social and material contexts in
which scientic inquiries take place (Latour 1987; Latour and Woolgar 1986;
Pickering 1980). Ethnographers have become more aware of and reective about
of how their research is shaped by the particular time and place in which it occurs
and their specic encounters and engagement with the sites of their eldwork.
3. The sociality and materiality of work
Since the founding of CSCW in the 1980s there has been continued interest in
exploring the nature of workin an effort to support the design of computer
technologies for the workplace. Prior to this time, to the degree technology was
designed with people in mind, the focus primarily had been on individual cognition,
psychology, and physiology as constraints on and augmentations to the usability of
computer technologies. For example, questions were asked about such things as how
large a pull downmenu of options could be before it became difcult for people to
select from the list or what font or font size was easier for people to read on a screen?
However, with the attention placed on cooperativework in CSCW it was not
surprising that ethnography was proposed as a way of gaining insights into the
practices of people interacting with each other and with computer technologies
(Greif 1988). So began a 25 year relationship between CSCW and ethnography.
We reect in this section on what we have we learned about the nature of
workthrough ethnographic studies and how these understandings have shaped
the design of computer technologies to support collaborative activities. We argue
that ethnographic studies have changed our understanding of work by
highlighting its sociality and materiality. In particular these studies have been
an essential resource in furthering the development of concepts such as situated
action,exible workows,situated awareness,articulation work, invisible work,
material resources for action, and common information spaces. Schmidt (2007,
p. 7) put it this way, ‘… understanding of cooperative work is indeed indebted
to the fantastic body of ethnographic studies of cooperative work that has been
produced over the years by researchers in CSCW and in related areas …’ We briey
review these important and inuential concepts, showing their connections to
ethnographic research as well as the technology directions that have been shaped by
them. We make no claims to the ontological status of these concepts, recognizing that
375Ethnography in CSCW
they are bound in many ways to their particular expressions in specicplacesand
times. However, we argue that these concepts, by drawing attention to the sociality
and materiality of work, help us see the here and now,identify temporal and spatial
connections among activities, and further our collective understanding of the nature
of work. In fact, we encourage more CSCW research that attempts to synthesize
across studies and that connects with conceptual work going on in related disciplines
such as anthropology, sociology, science and technology studies, and cognitive
science. We now discuss each of these inuential concepts in turn.
3.1. Situated action
One of the most cited publications in CSCW is SuchmansPlans and Situated
Action (1987), which outlined an argument whereby action is understood as
always unfolding in relation to the immediate situation at hand. This argument
challenged the widely held view at the time that people plan their actions to
achieve specic goals and then proceed to execute these plans. If deviations in
execution occur, this indicates that the plans have changed and a new course of
action is being followed. Suchman showed that this view is unable to account for
the observed interactions of people with each other and with machines. She
argued instead that plans are better conceptualized as resources for action, not
executable instructions that people carry out.
Ethnographic inquiry enabled Suchman to observe the ways operators of a
photocopy machine responded to the machines actions and adjusted their actions
accordingly. She argued that the machine, even with its built-in intelligencewas not
able to align its actions with the operatorsactions and that the rote execution of the
machines plans led to trouble in the interaction between the machine and its human
operators. This led Suchman to suggest that the design of the human-machine
interface might be better served by explicitly acknowledging this asymmetry and
better providing for the necessarily situated and contingent unfolding of action. Over
the years the concept of situated action has led technology designers to rethink the
role technology plays in the unfolding of action. The notion of situated action has
inuenced much of the conceptual work in CSCW and continues to provide a
counter to the view, still present today, which maintains that goals dene actions in a
straightforward way.
3.2. Coordination through exible workows
A central concern of CSCW has been in explaining how people are able to work
together to get things done. What mechanismsand coordinative practices do
they employ? Ethnographic studies have provided the primary means of
exploring these issues by allowing us to seecoordination in action, detailing
how workers align and adjust their activities in relation to the actions of others.
Beginning with early studies of ofce automation (Suchman 1983; Suchman and
Wynn 1984; Wynn 1979) challenges were made to assumptions about the efcacy
376 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
of strict adherence to formal processes and inexible workows. Through
ethnographic studies of ofce work, these authors showed how ofce workers adjust
their actions in response to the requirements of the work, which often necessitates
deviation from the formal processes. In Suchmans study procedural models were
unable to account for the everyday and exceptional cases of accounting practice
leading her to suggest that systems be designed to ‘…serve as a tool for the work of
accomplishing procedures, rather than a black boxthat accepts the product of that
work as input…’(Suchman 1983, p. 327, italics added).
While these early studies showed the impossibility of strict adherence to formal
procedures, alternative approaches to support coordination of actions were
developed. One such system which received a great deal of attention in CSCW
was the Coordinator (Suchman 1994;Winograd1994). It was designed to help order
work, to facilitate people working together, and to manage interdependencies among
workers and work tasks (Flores et al. 1988). The system dened a coordination-based
workow that was grounded in theories of communication and cognition (Austin
1962; Searle 1979; Winograd and Flores 1987). While the aim this system and others
like it was to support the coordination of tasks thus allowing workers to focus on the
particulars of their individual responsibilities, challenges were made to the efcacy of
these systems, the underlying assumptions they made about human action, and the
potential for such systems to exert undo control over organizational actors.
Ethnographic studies of workow systems in CSCW have shown the
limitations of these systems and have pointed to the need for tools and techniques
that more exibly align work and workers (Bowers and Churcher 1988;
Suchman 1994,1996). Specically, these studies of workow systems have shown
how a lack of exibility often leads to elaborate work aroundswhere workers
bypass the systems or engage with them in unexpected, and not always the most
efcient ways, in order to get their work done (Bowers et al. 1995). These studies
have led some to call for more exible workows where the workow system acts as
a resource for coordinating work while at the same time not too strictly regulating
action (Dourish et al. 1996;Dourish2001). In addition, ethnographic observations
have guided the development of systems geared toward making the actions of others
more visible (see Section 3.3 on Situated awareness) thus enabling the alignment of
work tasks across workers, groups, and organizations.
While rules, policies, and the explicit renderings of business processes are
ubiquitous in the workplace, ethnographic studies have pointed to the fact that
these artifacts, often realized in workow systems, must be applied in particular
situations. Part of the work of engaging with such artifacts is learning how to
respond to problematiccases where the stated policies and compulsory process
ows must be deviated so that the work can get done.
3.3. Situated awareness
Ethnographic studies also have explored the ways people coordinate with others
through both overt and subtle cues that allow others to become aware of their
377Ethnography in CSCW
actions. Such awarenessis achieved in a myriad of ways, with several studies
examining the role of overhearingin achieving worker alignment (Harper et al. 1991;
Heath and Luff 1992). Harper et al. (1991) showed the multiple ways air trafc
controllers maintain an awareness of the actions of their co-workers through their
use of artifacts, their following of procedures, and their overhearing the each
otherstalk. Similarly Heath and Luff (1992) detailed the subtle ways workers in
the London underground orient to each other through speech and gesture. These and
other studies point to the importance of physical artifacts (see Section 3.6 on
Material resources for action) and the role conventions play in orienting people to
the actions of others. In addition, ethnographic studies have shown how awareness is
a dynamic construct that is sometimes intentionally fashioned with considerable
effort exerted in conguringawareness (Heath et al. 2002).
The concept of awareness is not unproblematic, particularly in the context of
designing for awareness (Schmidt 2002). Pettersson et al. (2004, p. 149) provided a
critical reection on the concept of awareness as used in CSCW and carefully
articulated through an ethnographic study of emergency call center workers how
attentiveness to others is specically occasioned by a situation, which becomes
recognizable as problematic as the interaction develops.In other words, awareness is
motivated by what is going on at the moment and is not a generalized experience.
There are many things in the environment that one could be aware of, but it is those
things that are relevant to the situation at hand that become notable and available for
Although the theoretical status of the notion of awareness is contested, various
technologies have been designed to supportawareness (Harrison 2009), with
early explorations of the role of media spaces or permanent video and audio
connections to enable awareness, particularly in distributed environments (Dourish
and Bly 1992). Motivated by ethnographic studies showing how awareness is
achieved among co-located groups, these technologies aimed at providing peripheral
awareness, where the actions of others could be casually observed without requiring
explicit or intentional awareness generating actions (Pedersen and Sokoler 1997).
Other technologies have been designed to provide a sense of what others are doing as
a result of people using shared, synchronous, and asynchronous groupware systems
(Bardram and Hansen 2010). In these cases, actions of others are available for
scrutiny through the use of these shared technologies, with some systems also
offering explicit notication that particular actions have occurred.
3.4. Articulation work
The concept of articulation work informs much CSCW research. Drawing on the
work of Strauss (1985,1988), articulation work is described as ‘…work that gets
things back on trackin the face of the unexpected, and modies action to
accommodate unanticipated contingencies(Star and Strauss 1999, p. 10).
Schmidt and Bannon (1992) further specify the concept by pointing to the
378 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
fundamental role of articulation work in cooperative activities, managing the
distributed, yet interdependent, nature of work that follows from the division of
labor in the workplace where it is necessary to coordinate workersindividual
activities. These articulating activities they argue are extraneous to the activities
that contribute directly to fashioning the product or service and meeting
requirements(Schmidt and Bannon 1992, p. 8).
Articulation work is a fundamental characteristic of all work in that, [i]t is
impossible, both in practice and in theory, to anticipate and provide for every
contingency which might arise in carrying out a series of tasks. No formal
description of a system (or plan for its work) can thus be complete(Gerson and
Star 1986, p. 266). As such in order for work to get done the variations,
deviations, and inconsistencies must be resolved in the here and nowthrough
the actions of workers.
Ethnographic research with its emphasis on the importance of paying
attention not only to what people say they do, but also to what they can be
observed to do has been instrumental in providing in depth analysis of the
often underspecied and sometimes unstated characteristics of articulation
work. The unremarkable, taken for granted character of much of what people
do has made ethnographic inquiry indispensible in uncovering the machinery
of articulation workthe things people do to integrate and connect people,
artifacts, and information. Suchman (1996, p. 407) draws our attention to ‘…
the continuous efforts required in order to bring together discontinuous
elementsof organizations, of professional practices, of technologiesinto
working congurations.
Strauss (1988) recognized that organizations at times explicitly acknowledge
the coordinative requirements of work, dening responsibilities across actors
and naming actions to be taken to link one set of activities to another. But
as important, he also acknowledged that much articulation work is implicit
(ibid.) which often renders it invisible to ofcialdescriptions of work and
as such unrecognized and unacknowledged by managers, system designers,
and the workers themselves. Simply asking people about their work or the
work of others does not reveal the articulation work necessary to get things
3.5. Invisible work
Invisible work is related to implicit articulation work (as contrasted with explicit
articulation work) originally distinguished by Strauss (1988) in that implicit
articulation work often resides outside or beyond formal descriptions of work and
frequently is unacknowledged and/or unrewarded (Star 1991a,b). Drawing
attention to different kinds of invisible work Nardi and Engeström (1999)
describe four kinds of invisible work: (1) work done out of view of others, (2)
routine or manual work requiring judgment and skill not acknowledged, (3) work
379Ethnography in CSCW
done by people who are not valued, and (4) work that is not part of anyones job
description, but critical to getting things done.
Ethnographic research has been a resource for making visiblecritical aspects
of work that elude traditional or formal descriptions of work (Blomberg et al.
1997; Pratt et al. 2006; Unruh and Pratt 2008). For example, Blomberg et al.
(1997) showed how document coders at a law rm exhibited a great deal of
expertise in understanding document structure, legal practice, and the particulars
of the legal case at hand. This expertise was invisible to the lawyers at the rm
who thought the work of the coders could be automated easily using document
recognition software under development. In this way ethnographic studies
enabled CSCW researchers to identify workplace expertise and effort that was
hidden from viewbecause the accounts of work did not rely solely on verbal
descriptions of the work offered by people who were removed from the day-to-
day requirements of the work. As Star and Strauss (1999, p. 20) note, [i]f one
looked, one could literally see the work being donebut the taken for granted
status means that it is functionally invisible.
Star (1999,2002) has made the point that sociotechnical infrastructures by
their very nature are hidden, enablers of the realwork (Bowker and Star 1999)
and require paying attention to how they emerge and evolve over long periods of
time (Karasti et al. 2010). These characteristics of infrastructures mean that the
processes and activities by which they materialize are sometimes obscured from
view demanding of those who study them a fascination with and patience for the
long-term and often slow moving aspects of infrastructuring work.
Ethnographic research also orients us to the multiple perspectives of differently
positioned actors, including those whose voices are at risk of being left out of
ofcial accounts. What is in clear view to some may be invisible to others in a
similar way to how activities that are back stage for some are front stage for
others (Goffman 1969). Star and Strauss (1999, p. 14) state, [w]ithout that
understanding [of multiple perspectives and access to the details of work], it may
look as though secretaries are often just chit-chatting with each other or with
clientssurely an activity that indicates lack of real work.These activities
however may be enabling the more instrumental aspects of secretarieswork and
facilitating interdepartmental or organization cooperation and negotiation.
Understanding the multiple, and sometimes competing, denitions of the
situation can mitigate against leaving out important aspects of the work in
initiatives to redesign work or the technologies that support work. When
organizations restructure the invisible work of the organization is often
overlooked, rendering critical activities unaccounted for and leading to an
underrepresentation of the time and people needed to do the work. Acknowl-
edging invisible work in the design of systems to support cooperative work
reduces the likelihood that the new system will increase the burden for some as it
sanctions and supports the ofcially recognized work of others (Star 1992; Star
and Ruhleder 1994,1996).
380 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
However there are limits to the ability to make the out of sightaspects of
work visible and to the desirability of doing so, including both practical and
political tradeoffs for making work visible (Suchman 1995; Bowker et al. 1995;
Wagner 1993). From a practical standpoint reifying invisible work through explicit
representation can lead to these once invisible aspects of work being included in
business process models and management systems which can over burden workers
who now may be required to report on these aspects of their work. From a political
perspective, while exposing invisible work can give the work and the workers who
do it greater legitimacy (e.g. Karasti 2003;Bossenetal.2012), it can also lead to
greater scrutiny and even oppressive monitoring (Star and Strauss 1999).
3.6. Material resources for action
Ethnographic research has given us insights into the ways artifacts such as paper
documents, computer displays, timetables, whiteboard, and maps enable people
to work together, aligning their actions with those of others. Suchman and Trigg
(1991) noting that work takes place in particular times and places draw attention
to how [a]vailable technologies afford certain resources and constraints on how
the work gets done…’(Suchman and Trigg 1991, p.65). In this way getting work
done involves peoples ongoing interaction with the material resources available
in their environment. For example, Heath and Luff (1992) describe how displays
that show the status of various routes of the London underground allow workers
to plan for and enable the smooth ow of underground trafc. Similarly, Hughes
et al. (1992) show how ight progress strips, as they are manipulated and shared,
present an at a glanceway to check the status of aircraft in the sky and take
necessary action. In a similar way, Bowers et al. (1995) illustrate how a print shop
scheduling board is used to visualize the current status of the printing production
enabling planning and preparation for the jobs in the queue. Likewise, Suchmans
notion of centers of coordinationpoints to the way peoplesinteraction with
artifacts supports working divisions of labor that dene important aspects of the
organization of work (Suchman 1997). These kinds of artifacts provide ways of
seeingthe current state and orienting to the situation at hand. Furthermore, Sellen
and Harper (2002) questioning the efcacy of the paperless ofce show how the
material affordancesof paper differ from those of digital artifacts and as such are
able to facilitate certain activities in the ofce, including interactions among workers.
Schmidt and Wagner (2004) introduced the notion of coordinative artifacts
arguing for the essential role of inscription and material artifacts in cooperative
work. They state,
‘… contemporary cooperative ensembles would failcompletely and utterlyin
their collaborative effort if they could only coordinate and integrate their
activities by means of ordinary discursive practices, whether face-to-face
or remote, oral or written. In fact, contemporary cooperative ensembles
depend heavily on a range of highly specialized, standardized coordinative
381Ethnography in CSCW
practices involving a concomitant repertoire of equally specialized
coordinative artifacts.(Schmidt and Wagner 2004, p. 351)
Bardram and Bossen (2005b, p. 169) add that coordinative artifacts, lessen the
amount of articulation workneeded to achieve alignmentas workers orient to
these artifacts that dene divisions of labor and the ordering of activities.
3.7. Common information spaces
The notion of common information spaces (CIS) draws attention to the social and
material context in which information is shared among workers and it offers a
perspective on how people are able to perform their work in alignment with
others (Bannon and Schmidt 1991; Schmidt and Bannon 1992). The concept
augments and expands beyond the workow approach (see Section 3.2 on
Coordination through exible workows) where collaboration is viewed
through the lens of managing the temporal or procedural order of tasks or
activities. In CIS, with its focus on the interrelationships between information,
workers, and artefacts, the focus is on managing collections of discrete
informational resources to enable collaboration. Bannon and Schmidt emphazise
that CISs do not consist only of material representations or artefacts (e.g. objects
and events in a shared database), but also crucially involve the joint interpretation
of and the meaning attributed to these artefacts and representations by the actors
involved. Therefore, CISs can be dened as information spaces that are implicitly
or explicitly co-constructed and shared by cooperating actors with the aim of
interpreting and articulating their work. In addition, articulation work is required
to place information in common especially when workers are separted in time and
space and cannot rely on at the momentnegotiation of the meaning of shared
information. (Schmidt and Bannon 1992).
Ethnographic studies have explored an expanding range of CISs in a variety of
collaborative work settings, including two radiologists interpreting pre-arranged
images and patient materials in front of light screens (Kuutti and Karasti 1995),
cooperation in massively distributed, physical information spaces (Bertelsen
and Bødker 2001), meetings in a heterogeneous range of information contexts
(Rolland et al. 2006), and negotiating the temporal and evolving character of
medical information and work along the illness trajectories of chronic patients
(Munkvold and Ellingsen 2007). The mechanisms used to support the holding in
commonof information in these different settings varies accordingly as these
ethnographic studies demonstrate. Attempting to create a systematic way of
dening CISs, Fields and his collaborators developed a framework for CIS based
on an analysis of air trafc control settings (Fields et al. 2005;Selvarajand
Fields 2010) and Bossen identied seven parameters that characterize particular
CISs (Bossen 2002) based on empirical studies in diverse settings.
CIS are not xed as they are co-constructed in action and yet achieve their
value by providing a kind of closure in the sense that they become immutable,
382 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
allowing for working across contexts and communities of practice (see Bannon
and Bødker 1997 for a discussion of the dialectic nature of CIS). This
immutablity helps foster understanding of the informations orginal rationale or
meaning in future use situations. On the other hand, Rolland et al. (2006),
emphasizing the dynamic, malleable and open character of CIS, argue that
particularly large-scale CISs tend to reproduce fragmentation as an unintentional
consequence of integrating heterogeneous sources of information.
The emphasis on the requirement that CIS be constructed in practice has
reminded technology designers that simply providing a common technology
platform or shared access to informational resources does not imply fruitful
collaboration or sharing of information (ibid.). Furthermore, the ideas of CIS
have been applied to the design of systems that do not prescribe procedures for
human interaction and collaboration, but rather facilitate community cooperation
by supporting the co-creation of CISs.
While the precise formulation of CIS has come under scrutiny, with questions
asked about what is meant by common or shared (Randall 2000), by information
(Bannon 2000), and by spaces (Harrison and Dourish 1996; Spinelli and
Brodie 2003), the concept has nonetheless proven valuable in orienting
researchers and designers to the necessary effort required to construct contexts
for collaboration that align and integrate artifacts, people, and processes. In a
sense CIS points to a related issue concerning how researchers constructthe eld
site of collaborative work, realizing that it is not xed but arranged or assembled
for purposes of the research, including the technology design issues in focus. In
the next section we explore changing understandings of the eld siteprompted
by the increasingly distributed, mobile, virtual, and networked quality of many
activities and by recent retheorizing the object of ethnographic inquiry.
4. Constructing the eld site
Ethnographic workplace studies rely on eldwork in real-world settings. These
designated eld sitesare an obvious and essential component of all
ethnographic research. Therefore, it is surprising how little attention has been
paid to the eld sitein CSCW. Conversely, the eld sitehas always been a
central concern for ethnography, particularly in anthropology, and in recent years
it has become problematized and even more topical.
We organize our discussion of Constructing the eld siteby rst tracing how
the eld sitehas been conceived in CSCW, focusing in Section 4.1.1 on Single-
sited workplace studies, in Section 4.1.2 on Comparative studies over multiple
work sites, and in Section 4.1.3 on the view Beyond the workplace. While we
do not propose to present a chronological progression in how the eld site is
dened in CSCW, we nd that there are elements of change over time in both the
diversication and expansion of what is understood as the eld site. Finally, in
Section 4.1.4 on Emerging arenas and challengeswe discuss contemporary
383Ethnography in CSCW
developments and issues that relate to the diversication and expansion of what is
dened as the eld site.
We then continue our discussion by briey introducing two recent eld site
related developments in anthropology that we believe are relevant for addressing
contemporary challenges faced by ethnographic studies in CSCW. In Section 4.2
on Constructing the eld site in anthropologywe discuss a development within
anthropology which organizes around an understanding of the eld site as
constructed,challenging the notion of the eld site as distinct, easily bounded,
and waiting to be discovered. In Section 4.4 on Multi-sited ethnography in
anthropologywe present a second development within anthropology which calls
into question the conventional view of localityas spatially and temporally
bounded and that introduces the concept of multi-sited ethnography. Here the
studied phenomenon is understood to be constituted by mobility, intersection, and
ow; with a focus on connections, associations, and relationships across space
and time. These two developments within anthropology are each followed by a
discussion of their relation to CSCW research, beginning in Section 4.3 with how
eld sites are constructedin CSCW and followed by a discussion in Section 4.5
of multi-sited ethnography
in CSCW. We conclude our discussion by
suggesting that reconceptualizing the eld site as a multi-sited construct may
help address recent concerns in CSCW which decenter the workplace as the site
for theorizing about technology in relation to the support of cooperative activities.
4.1. Field sites in CSCW studies
This section focuses on the ways in which the eld sitehas been characterized
in CSCW research, often in terms of spatially and temporally located socio-
material processes of interest. We consider the setting of the eld site and the
types of collaborative activities, computer support, and research topics germane
to those settings.
4.1.1. Single-sited workplace studies
Many of the early workplace studies were about technology-intensive forms of
practice in localized worksites such as air trafc control rooms (Harper et al. 1991;
Bentley et al. 1992; Harper and Hughes 1993), control centers in the London
underground (Heath and Luff 1991,1992) and in the Paris Metro (Filippi and
Theureau 1993), airport ground operations rooms (Suchman and Trigg 1991;
Goodwin and Goodwin 1997;Suchman1993), and navigation at the bridge of a ship
(Hutchins 1990,1995). In these studies of centers of coordination(Suchman 1997),
the eld siteis characteristically framed as a densely socio-material location where
In fact, the initial, inuential article on multi-sited ethnography by Marcus (1995) has been criticized for
its lack of attention to processes of bounding, selection and choicethat are central in constructing the
eld site(Candea 2009, p. 27). We want to avoid this by starting with the topic of constructing the eld
sitebefore continuing to multi-sited ethnography.
384 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
boundaries are assumed and unproblematically dened. These hot-spots of
communication and coordination are characterized in terms of patterns of both co-
present and technology-mediated interactions, real-time co-location, and immediate
presence of a relatively small group of workers with strong mutual orientation,
awareness, and monitoring of each other and the developing situation. This way of
demarcating the site of study continues within CSCW with research focused on
medical operating rooms (Koschmann et al. 2006; Svensson et al. 2007)and
emergency service centers (Pettersson et al. 2004; Paoletti 2009) among others.
Single-sited ethnographic studies of collaborative work have ourished in
CSCW (Button 1993; Engeström and Middleton 1996; Heath et al. 2000; Heath
and Luff 2000; Pollock and Williams 2010; Randell et al. 2011; Szymanski and
Whalen 2011; Fitzpatrick and Ellingsen 2013). However, these single-sited
studies display a great deal of variety in researcherschoices and strategies for
how to structure and operationalize eldwork and data collection within the
single-sites in order to investigate the complex conditions and activities that
particular collaborative work involves. For some this has meant focusing on
artifacts (Schneider and Wagner 1993; Suchman et al. 2002; Schmidt and Wagner
2004; Bardram and Bossen 2005b; Halverson and Ackerman 2008; Bjørn and
Hertzum 2011) and documents (Luff et al. 1992; Heath and Luff 1996; Hertzum
1999; Sellen and Harper 2002; Østerlund 2008; Szymanski and Whalen 2011)in
cooperative work, and for others it has meant a concern with spatial (Tellioglu
and Wagner 2001; Bardram and Bossen 2005a) or temporal (Egger and Wagner
1993; Bardram 2000; Reddy and Dourish 2002; Reddy et al. 2006) dimensions of
work. Others have focused on common objects (Rogers 1993), boundary objects
(Lee 2007; Bossen et al. 2012), or trajectories (Ackerman and Halverson 2004;
Seebeck et al. 2005; Graham et al. 2005; Munkvold and Ellingsen 2007). Other
strategies include comparisons of physical and digital work practices or workspaces
(Luff et al. 1992; Büscher et al. 2001a; Bossen and Markussen 2010)withinthesame
settings. Yet others have focused on mobilities (Luff and Heath 1998; Juhlin and
Weil en ma nn 2001; Bardram and Bossen 2003,2005a; Nilsson and Hertzum 2005)
and the integration of real world and virtual environments (Fitzpatrick et al. 1996;
Bowers et al. 1996; Hindmarsh et al. 1998). In addition, there are a number of studies
that dene their focus based on certain collaboration technologies where the eld site
is delimited by the use of particular technologies.
In single-sited workplace studies it is more common for the study site to be
delimited by situation relevant boundaries, such as physical, technological,
organizational, institutional, or geographic borders. However, already the
foundational studies of coordination centers revealed aspects of a more
distributed workplace, where the hot-spot centers are directly connected via
technologies to distant locations (Suchman 1997) and where moving out from
the control room(Hughes et al. 1994a) to more dispersed worlds of work is
evident. This trend has continued in more recent studies of coordination centers,
for example, ONeill et al. (2011) specically focus on the navigation and
385Ethnography in CSCW
coordination of call center agents as they engage with the distant customers and
machines. Furthermore, some of the strategies used in single-sited studies have
caused the tightly circumscribed boundaries to leak, for instance, following
patient trajectories as work crosses institutional boundaries (Randell et al. 2011),
pursuing mobile work (Nilsson and Hertzum 2005), tracking an experimental
system as it traverses institutional boundaries (Karasti 2001b), analyzing
individual workers personal social networks (Nardi et al. 2002), and exploring
relationship work in war roommeetings for global engineering (Bjørn and
Christensen 2011). Thus, whether this has been planned from the start of a project
or develops as researchers get to know the eld with its multiple connections to
other sites, the result is more distributed and open-ended eld sites.
4.1.2. Comparative studies over multiple work sites
Analyses of the specicities of particular work settings have been criticized for
emphasizing the uniqueness of the setting instead of dening similarities across settings.
This is often seen as problematic for systems design since the expectation is that these
systems will be used in a range of workplace settings. In response, some researchers
within CSCW have conducted comparative studies over multiple work sites in order to
provide understandings about the similarities and commonalities in work practices, for
example, providing meta-analysis (Martin et al. 2007), analysis of the higher-order
practices (Schmidt et al. 2007), or larger synthesis (Suchman 1997); exploring critical
and disputed design issues (Mackay 1999); developing a typology for health informatics
(Balka et al. 2008); and increasing the relevance and generalizability of the ndings for
design (Randell et al. 2011). To achieve these generalizable aims, research is planned,
organized, and conducted as comparative from the beginning (Bowers et al. 1995;
ONeill et al. 2008; Randell et al. 2011), or is carried out aposterioriby revisiting
and drawing on an existing set of single-sited studies (Martin et al. 2007;Schmidtet
al. 2007), or is conducted as a new single-sited study to be compared with a selected
set of prior studies (Mackay 1999). These studies all assemble the eld site to allow
horizontal comparison over several single-sited studies.
4.1.3. Beyond the workplace
Many CSCW studies have moved out of the workplacealtogether as non-work
settings have become saturated with CSCW-type technologies, for example,
mobile, ambient, pervasive, ubiquitous, and wearable computing, not to mention
online social software and collaborative, virtual, and mixed reality environments.
There also are increasingly more ethnographic studies of diverse settingsof everyday
life, for example domestic (OBrien et al. 1999; Crabtree and Rodden 2004;Crabtree
et al. 2004; Bell and Dourish 2007;Rode2010; Massimi et al. 2012), parenting
(Rode 2009), children and youth (Taylor and Harper 2003; Schiano et al. 2007;
Barkhuus and Lecusay 2012), aging and home care (Palen and Aaløkke 2006;
Lindley et al. 2008;Aarhusetal.2009; Aarhus and Ballegaard 2010;Müller
et al. 2012), leisure (Hindmarsh et al. 2002; Szymanski et al. 2008; Juhlin and
386 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
Weil en ma nn 2008; Durrant et al. 2012), gaming (Brown and Bell 2004;Crabtreeet
al. 2005; Nardi and Harris 2006; Benford et al. 2006;Crabtreeetal.2007;
Ducheneaut et al. 2007; Bennerstedt and Ivarsson 2010), community (Mynatt et al.
1998; Ducheneaut 2005;Geiger2010; Saeed et al. 2011;Baumeretal.2011), urban
settings and public events (Jacucci et al. 2005; Hindmarsh et al. 2005;OHara et al.
2003; Paay and Kjeldskov 2008; Schiano and Bellotti 2011), tourism (Brown and
Chalmers 2003), and socializing and peer social relationships, for example, instant
messaging, text messaging, and social networking (Nardi et al. 2000,2004; Taylor
and Harper 2003;Nardi2005; Ducheneaut 2005; Perry and Rachovides 2007).
While studies that expand the framing of CSCW beyond the workplace have
invited reections about the boundaries of CSCW as a research discipline (e.g.
Crabtree et al. 2005; Schmidt 2011a; Star and Strauss 1999), the eld site often
continues to be conceptualized as single-sited, such as museums, amusement
parks, and elderly residences, or as studies of multiple single sites such as across
many households (e.g. OBrien et al. 1999; Rode 2010; Massimi et al. 2012).
4.1.4. Emerging arenas and challenges
In the last few years, new arenas have emerged and old ones have been
vigorously rediscovered in CSCW as a response to contemporary challenges.
People are increasingly on the move; ows of goods, information, media images,
and services are ever more global; organizations are more fragmented,
geographically dispersed, and sometimes virtual; collaborations are progressively
more large-scale, cross-cultural, and transnational; and technologies are more
mobile, ubiquitous, integrated, and infrastructural.
While studies of the virtual have been on the CSCW agenda since at least the mid
1990s, they have become more prominent with the ubiquity of the Internet and
proliferation of virtual environments, particularly in relation to social networking and
gaming research. Connections over the Internet, including wireless, have rendered
the eld site rather unboundedas in the case of social networking, spreading over
mobile device infrastructures (e.g. Nardi et al. 2004; Schiano et al. 2007), and in the
case of gaming, dispersing to either virtual (e.g. Ducheneaut et al. 2007)ormixed
reality environments (e.g. where the eld site integrates online on the screen and real-
world on the streets, Benford et al. 2006). While many ethnographic studies of the
virtual in CSCW conceive the eld site as a mix of the real world and virtual
environments, in some recent studies the eld site has been set up as purely virtual
(e.g. Nardi and Harris 2006; Ducheneaut et al. 2007).
Mobility studies that began in CSCW within the framing of single-sited
studies (see Section 4.1.1 on Single-sited workplace studies) have expanded
both their spatial and temporal reach. The notions of mobility have
diversied (see Büscher et al. 2011) from the corporeal movement of people
and physical movement of objects or artifacts within bounded eld sites (e.g.
Bardram and Bossen 2005a) to encompass more open or hybrid ecologies
that include boundary crossings (e.g. Rolland et al. 2006), global processes
387Ethnography in CSCW
(e.g. Avram et al. 2009), and the use of mobile devices in large-scale events and
urban settings (e.g. Lindström and Pettersson 2010; Schiano and Bellotti 2011).
Furthermore, nomadic work (Su and Mark 2008), mobile technology, transnational
migration (Williams et al. 2008), the global mobility of information technology
images and imagination (Lindtner et al. 2012), and information technology use by
people in developing regions (Taylor 2011) have captured the attention of CSCW
Beginning with the pioneering investigations inspired by Science and Technology
Studies (STS) in 1990s (Star and Ruhleder 1994,1996; Hanseth et al. 1994,1996),
there has been a growing interest in topics that necessitate a scope that extends beyond
what single-sited studies can offer, for example, standardization and/or system
integration (Hanseth and Braa 2001; Ellingsen and Monteiro 2003,2006; Ellingsen
and Røed 2010; Winthereik and Vikkelsø 2005; Johannessen and Ellingsen 2009;
Meum et al. 2011), open source and distributed software development
(Ducheneaut 2005; Avram et al. 2009; Bjørn and Christensen 2011), infrastructure
studies of healthcare (JCSCW Special Issue on Information Infrastructures for
Healthcare, Bansler and Kensing 2010), and for large-scale scientic collaboration
(JCSCW Special Issues on Collaboration in e-Research (Jirotka et al. 2006)and
Sociotechnical Studies of Cyberinfrastructure and e-Research (Lee et al. 2010)).
On the whole, it has become increasingly problematic in CSCW to conceptualize
the eld site as single-sited. The eld site has become a multifaceted and intricate
constellation of people, technologies, activities, entities, and relations; and the
boundaries of the eld site are less clear, even unbounded, involving extended spatial
and temporal scope. This raises interesting practical, methodological, substantive,
epistemological, and political issues and challenges for ethnography in CSCW.
We now turn our attention to a discussion of issues related to constructing the
eld siteand multi-sited ethnography, with a focus on the researchers location
and position within the sites of CSCW research and on the construction of multi-
sited objects and topics of study. Our purpose is not to cover in detail the many
topics of relevance to dening eld sites in anthropological and ethnographic
research. While this is outside our scope, we refer the interested reader to
comprehensive introductions within the cited literature.
4.2. Constructing the eld site in anthropology
Fieldwork and its location have always been of central interest in anthropology where
research relies on intensive participant observation (Gupta and Ferguson 1997;
Hannerz 1992;Amit2000a) and where activities are experienced as performed rather
Cited literature include, Marcusfoundational article on multi-sited ethnography (Marcus 1995) and
further developments on multi-sited program (Marcus 1998), two edited books that discuss both
theoretical and practical challenges in doing multi-sited ethnography (Falzon 2009a; Coleman and von
Hellerman 2011a), and criticisms of multi-sited ethnography (Hage 2005; Candea 2007,2009).
388 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
than only communicated in dialogue. Thus there has been an assumption of the
physical presence of the researcher in the eld. Immersion in the eldallowedfor
fundamentally social experiences constituted through the eldworkers relationship
with eld site participants. The researchers personal relationships served as primary
vehicles for ethnographic insight where dataare produced in and of thick
interaction between the researcher and the researched.
Recently the notion of eld site as distinct and easily bounded has been
problematized (Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Olwig and Hastrup 1997; Amit 2000a)
and what has emerged is an understanding that the eld site is (and always has
been) constructed rather than discovered.
The notion of immersion implies that the eldwhich ethnographers enter
exits as an independently bounded set of relationships and activities which is
autonomous of the eldwork through which it is discovered. Yet in a world of
innite interconnections and overlapping contexts, the ethnographic eld
cannot simply exist, awaiting discovery. It has to be laboriously constructed,
pried apart from all the other possibilities for contextualization to which its
constituent relationships and connections could also be referred. This process
of construction is inescapably shaped by conceptual, professional, nancial
and relational opportunities and resources accessible to the ethnographer.
(Amit 2000b, p. 6, italics added)
Thus, the eld site is not out there waiting to be visited; instead it is reexively
constructed by every choice the ethnographer makes in selecting, connecting, and
bounding the site and via the interactions through which s/he engages with the
material artifacts and the people who dene the eld. Ethnographers dene the objects
and subjects of their research during eldwork, informed by their interests and
motivations. Field sites as unbounded spaces of possibilities are continuously carved
outby the ethnographer in relation to specic resources, situations, and opportunities
in the settings. Thus, constructing the eld sitedraws attention to the researchers
active role and activities in shaping the eld siteas it becomes formulated and
distinguished apart from a multitude of other ways it could be contextualized.
4.3. Field sites as constructs in CSCW?
The prevalent, taken-for-granted way of conceiving the eld site in CSCW is as a
rather xed and bounded object of research to be named and described in varying
degrees of detail much like early discoverymodels of the eld in anthropology.
With a focus on a single (or somewhat extended) setting, the aim of these CSCW
studies was to gain an understanding of the details of practice in a particular
setting with the particular work/activity domains typically pre-selected according
to some research interest. The designated eld site was viewed unproblematically
as a predened object of study to be described in further detail as the study
389Ethnography in CSCW
Even in studies of centers of coordination where the eld site may seem clean
and circumscribed, the wallsare constantly traversed because various activities
in-heredeal with, manage, and coordinate resources out-there.Inaddition,
researchers have found it useful to focus on subsets of cooperationwithin control
room settings (Filippi and Theureau 1993) and have utilized opportunities that arise
during the eldwork to study changes involved in moving operations from one work
facility to another (Suchman 1997). In these examples the ethnographer(s) constructs
the eld site through the activities of connecting, selecting, and boundingalthough
these activities often remain invisible to the reader.
With the myriad of ways in which eldwork has been structured and
operationalized in single-sited workplace studies, it seems apparent that eld
sites are not waiting for the researcher to discoverthem, rather the eldworker
thoughtfully selects to follow artifacts, documents, or people; or map spatial or
temporal trajectories; or trace the movement of boundary objects; or at times
connect to other sites. What is often missing however is explicit reection on
these choices other than in terms of adjusting the scope of data collection and
analysis to address specied research interests.
CSCW researchers have not for the most part problematizedthe eld site as
has been the case in anthropology where the researchersactive, reexive agency
in constructing the eld sites is explicitly recognized. So, the more subtle ways in
which the eld site is continuously constructed remain implicit and unarticulated.
There are some exceptions, especially if we look beyond the clearly dened
CSCW literature. In reporting on a study of the use of an Electronic Patient
Record (EPR) system in a small General Practice clinic, Winthereik et al. (2002)
address the issue of constructing the eld site as they discuss negotiating access
to the eld site. Based on an analysis of the problematics of doing eldwork, they
posit how negotiations for site access enable reconsideration of the researchers
assumptions and initial research questions. By raising the issue of what the
researchers can and cannot see, they illustrate how the eld site and the object of
study are continually transformed and constructed.
In another example Henriksen (2002) explores the eldworkerspositionin
constructing the eld site in a study of a web-based information system in a
multinational pharmaceutical company. She describes through specic ethnographic
encounters how the eld site is comprised of distributed and shifting practices which
challenge her ability to pin-down and identify the dispersed and elusive
technological phenomenon of her study. The issues Henriksen raises also are related
to the discussion of multi-sited ethnography presented in the following sections.
Finally Aanestad (2003) draws attention to the role technological actorscan
play in constructing the eld site. In a study of the introduction of a multimedia
communication technology into a surgical operating theatre, she includes the
camera as an actantin the processes of constructing the eld site. In this
longitudinal study, the eld site is shown to be achieved through emergent and
situated processes rather than preplanned.
390 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
To elaborate a bit further on this notion of the eld site as constructed, lets
look at a current debate in CSCW that concerns expanding the focus of study
beyond the work setting. There are two seemingly opposite stances, one that
emphasizes the differences and another that stresses the similarities between work
and non-work settings. Researchers who emphasize the fundamental differences
between work and non-work activities hold that work necessitates consideration
of effectiveness and efciency whereas non-work demands a concern for
emotions, happiness, playfulness, and enjoyment (Brown and Barkhuus 2007).
In addition, it is argued that the complexities involved with heterogeneous work
settings are far more demanding than those involved in any kind of ludic
activities (Schmidt 2011a,b). Others argue for the similarities between work and
non-work settings, noting that both involve socially organized joint activity of
mundane practices (Crabtree et al. 2005). For instance, those working within the
ethnomethodological tradition are interested in exploring how the methods of
collaborative organization of joint activities in work environments can be
transposed to investigate non-work environments (OBrien et al. 1999; Crabtree
et al. 2005).
From the anthropological point of view of constructing the eld site, the issue
is not which stance is correct, but rather that the eld site is dened as work or
non-work or both depending on how the boundaries of the research are
constructed. Assumptions about difference and similarity between work and
non-work are inuenced by the questions one is asking. In a similar vein Star and
Strauss (1999, p. 10) write,
little is obvious in any general sense about what exactly counts as work.
When people agree, it may seem obvious or natural to think of some set of
actions as work, or as leisure. But as soon as the legitimacy of the action qua
work is questioned, debate or dialogue begins.
Star and Strauss are referring to debates regarding the status of such activities
as housework or childcare as non-work, while golf and client dinners are an
important part of sales work. This is related to the earlier discussion in Section 3.5
on the relation between visible and invisible work.
If the eld site is understood as constructed, it is not all that evident that the
work and non-work settings are so clearly differentiated in any absolute way.
Elements of playfulness, efciency, complexity, and collaborative organization
are all potentially present as components of the constructed eld site. In
alignment with this argument, some CSCW researchers point out that making a
sharp distinction between work and non-work settings is problematic (see e.g.
JCSCW Special Issue on Leisure Technologies, Barkhuus and Brown 2007).
Frequently provided examples of boundary blurring include such things as
working from home (e.g. teleworking, freelancers or remote working days), home
banking, home shopping, education at home, and elder care in the home. While
pointing to such examples of the conation of work and non-work activities, the
391Ethnography in CSCW
collaborative practices that blur boundaries, spatially, temporally, and conceptu-
ally have not been much explored in CSCW.
Continuing our discussion of the eld site as a multi-sited construct, we now
present a brief discussion of developments in anthropology regarding multi-sited
ethnographyfollowed by an examination of the relevance of multi-sited studies
for CSCW.
4.4. Multi-sited ethnography in anthropology
The notion of the eld site as a naturallyoccurring entity, such as the
romanticized far away villagethat represents a culture, has been challenged in
anthropology (Gupta and Ferguson 1997;Marcus1995). Ethnographers
encounter an increasingly mobile population,
calling into question the idea that
localityis a spatially or temporally bounded site of cultural production. Multi-
sited ethnography,
moves out from the single sites and local situations of conventional
ethnographic research designs to examine the circulation of cultural meanings,
objects, and identities in diffuse time-space. This mode denes for itself an
object of study that cannot be accounted for ethnographically by remaining
focused on a single site of intensive investigation. (Marcus 1995, p. 96)
Falzon in discussing Marcusnotion of multi-sited ethnography continues,
The essence of multi-sited research is to follow people, connections,
associations, and relationships across space (because they are substantially
continuous but spatially non-contiguous). Research design proceeds by a series
of juxtapositions in which the global is collapsed into and made an integral
part of parallel, related local situations, rather than something monolithic or
external to them.(Falzon 2009b, pp. 12)
Thus, multi-sited ethnography addresses culture as constituted by intersection
and ow, and following the features associated with ever more extended and
global processes, movements, continuities, and discontinuities.
In terms of eldwork strategies, multi-sited ethnography involves a spatially
dispersed eld through which the ethnographer moves(Falzon 2009b, p. 2). The
eld site conguration can include modes that lend coherence to research without
being static and spatially bounded. Trackingstrategies for multi-sited
ethnographic research may include following the person, the object, the
metaphor, the story, the biography, or the conict across sites (Marcus 1995,
pp. 105110). Amit adds that ethnographers must purposively create the
occasions for contacts that are episodic, occasional, partial, and ephemeralas
they study mobile individuals, diffuse processes, and dispersed and/or fragmented
Büscher et al. 2011 offer another way of understanding this shift as a turn to mobilities.
392 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
social networks (Amit 2000b, pp. 1415). Multi-sited studies often remain more
ambivalent about relevant locationsand actually make it part of their goal to
nd out where interesting things might be going on(Hine 2007, p. 661). An
important part of the work of constructing the eld site is to dene the more
complexmulti-sited object of study (Marcus 1998, pp. 1314). The multi-sited
program has played a crucial role in expanding the possibilities of anthropology
and the range of topics which could be considered suitable for eldwork”’
(Candea 2009, p. 33).
Given new mobilities, intricate socio-technical constellations, and virtual
worlds (Beaulieu 2004; Hine 2007; Nardi 2010; Büscher et al. 2011) that
increasingly constitute the eld of inquiry, it becomes challenging to foreground
and pull forward something coherent from such overlapping and intertwined
social terrains and this ‘… renders the ethnographer an even more central agent in
the construction of the eld”’ (Amit 2000b, p. 14).
The central role of the ethnographer is noteworthy also in writings that discuss the
main challenges of multi-sited ethnography, for example, the lack of depth in such
studies and challenges to the presumption of holism. Some question if multi-sited
ethnography compromises the thick descriptionespoused by Geertz (1973)asthis
‘… type of research implies moving around and followinghorizontally, there is
little time for staying put and followingvertically(Falzon 2009b, p. 7). Given this
real concern Marcusinitial response was to call for ethnography through thick and
thin(Marcus 1998), where there is a strong accountability for intended, structured
partiality and incompleteness in ethnographic research designs(Marcus 2011,p.
21). He recognized that the strength of ethnography in multi-sited projects is variable
and certain sites are more strategic for intensive investigation than others. Hages
(2005) critical stance toward multi-sited research cautions that there may be an
implication of tacit holismand suggests adopting a certain reexivity concerning
the social relations that one is opting not to cover in depthand better dene ones
partiality (Hage 2005, p. 466). Candea addresses the issue of incompletenessby
pointing out that the ethnographer always must make methodological decisions
(makeacut) about whats in and out, reecting upon and taking responsibility for
these choices (Candea 2007,p.174).
4.5. Towards constructing multi-sited ethnographies in CSCW
There is a growing awaress of the need for extending the number and variety of
study sites in CSCW (e.g. Räsänen and Nyce 2008; Pollock and Williams 2010;
Fitzpatrick and Ellingsen 2013; Monteiro et al. forthcoming). Ethnographic studies
of bounded single-sites produce rich and detailed analyses of collaboration, but they
are not able to reect the ways organizations and activites are becoming increasingly
unboundedwith the availability of mobile, virtual, ubiquous, ambient, and
pervasive technologies. Initial steps towards conceiving of eld sites as multi-sited
can be found in the Section 4.1.2 on Comparative studies over multiple siteswhere
393Ethnography in CSCW
a number of ethnographic studies are brought into a horizontal comparative
arrangement, albeit in a rather straightforward manner and often a posteriori.There
is, however, much more to the shift from the study of small, localized communities
than a simple multiplication of eld sites (Amit 2000b,p.13).
The kinds of studies we have discussed in Section 4.1.3 on Beyond the
workplaceand in Section 4.1.4 on Emerging arenas and challengeshighlight
strategies for constructing the eld site that are not limited to simply increasing
the number of sites. Emergent interconnections and complexities of the studied
phenomenon are reected in the construction of eld sites so that they reach over
multiple temporal and spatial scales and dimensions. It is important to bear in
mindas Marcus remindsthat multi-sited eld sites are not isomorphic with
reied networks, technical systems, or conceptual models; but more accurately
track ongoing processes in relation to such assemblages (Marcus 2009, p. 190).
Furthermore, the metaphor of followingdoes not imply simply traversing a
route laid out in advance, but rather actively choosing and constituting the
ethnographic path (Coleman and von Hellerman 2011b, p. 3). In a similar vein,
Räsänen and Nyce argue for more analytical and contextually inclusive ways of
understanding technology and its design and implementation that pay[s]
attention to what goes on beyond the immediate use of technology itself, i.e.
turn towards the structures and conventions that constitute technology use and
vice versa(Räsänen and Nyce 2008, p. 403).
Two recent studies provide examples of how researchers have taken steps to
construct the object of study together with the eld site as part of multi-sited
ethnographic research. In addition, these examples explicitly include temporal
considerations as part of the multi-sited studies. Karasti et al. (2010) present a
narrative account of a three-year study of collaborative infrastructure develop-
ment that takes place in the context of a decade-long joint research undertaking of
the US LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) network. The multi-sited eld
study followedthe unfolding development process of a metadata standard and
associated tools for supporting large-scale collaboration in ecological research.
The study involved a network of 26 ecological research sites, the network-level
information management committee, and the national development organization
that serves the ecological research domain. Through the analysis of collaborative
infrastructure developmentthe authors develop the notions of infrastructure
timeand continuing designthat take into consideration the dispersion of and
differences in sites, practices, concerns, and temporal scope. These notions
expand the customary temporal dimension of collaborative development and
advance a view of more diversied temporal hybrids in collaborative infrastruc-
ture development.
Another example of an extensive multi-sited ethnographic study is a more than
two-decade long program of empirical research into the evolution of corporate
information infrastructures, more specically packaged enterprise solutions
(Pollock and Williams 2009,2010). Through their research on Enterprise
394 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
Resource Planning systems, Pollock and Williams (ibid.) put forward a
Biography of Artefacts(BoA) perspective that emphasizes the value of
strategic ethnographyfor theoretically-informed, longitudinal, multi-sited eld-
work. They argue that the perspective is underpinned by the need to address
technologies at different moments in the systems development life-cycle
(design, implementation, use and further enhancement) and their relation to
the broader product cycle (encompassing the shift from emerging to mature
products and their subsequent extension and evolution)(Pollock and
Williams 2010,pp.543544).
The recent challenges of studying extended settings and emerging arenas
in CSCW raise questions about the relevance of ethnography for CSCW.
However, the spatially and temporally expanded horizons of action are
within the grasp of the methodological and analytic province of ethnography
if we view the eld site as a construct dened at the intersection of the
developing research interests, the multi-sited object of study, and the
particular engagement of the researcher. We argue for a willingness to
pursue emerging and unfolding connections, ows, and discontinuities in
constructing the sites, objects, and topics of ethnographic inquiry. This
aligns well with the open-ended agenda of CSCW (Bowers et al. 1992;
Schmidt 2012), mitigates concerns about ethnographys continuing relevance
to CSCW, and expands the range of multi-sited ethnographies within
CSCWs purview.
5. Connecting ethnography and design
During the last 25 years the boundary between ethnography and design has been
explored and (re)dened (for reviews and discussions see e.g. Anderson 1997;
Blomberg et al. 1993;Schmidt2000;Porsetal.2002;Blombergand
Burrell 2012; Blomberg and Karasti 2012). Much of the literature on the relation
between ethnography and design has relied on weak connections, positioning
ethnography in the role of informing design, serving a design agenda, or
provisioning implications for design
(Anderson 1994; Plowman et al. 1995;
Dourish 2006). In this section we offer an alternative way of positioning
ethnography in relation to design. We discuss less frequent strategies that
radically reposition ethnography not as a tool for design, but as deeply integrated
into the doing of design in CSCW. We follow with a discussion of ethnographic
research that is positioned to proceed relatively unfettered with the problems of
We have chosen not to review the literature on the development of formal representations, design
methods, schemas, scenarios, personas, experience models, and the like that have been developed to
connect ethnography and design (see for example Hughes et al. 1995,1997; Sommerville et al. 1992;
Viller and Sommerville 1999; Twidale et al. 1993; Blomberg and Burrell 2012; Carroll 2000; Nardi 1992;
Bødker et al. 2004; Pruitt and Grudin 2003; Pruitt and Adlin 2006).
395Ethnography in CSCW
design, as we see its continued relevance and importance in CSCW, especially in
relation to emerging developments.
5.1. Strategies for integration: reconciling differences and nding synergies
Despite the debates about disciplinary discrepancies too great to overcome and
perspectives too different to resolve (Grudin and Grinter 1995;Buttonand
Harper 1996; Bader and Nyce 1998), some researchers and research groups have
engaged in exploring in practice how to create opportunities for tightly coupling
the perspectives of ethnography and design. We briey present ve of these
strategies and highlight how they have reconciled and found synergies for
assumptions and expectations regarding the relation between ethnography and
design. The strategies all involve greater participation of the intended usersof
the designed artifact(s) in dening the emerging design and as such draw
inspiration from the principles and practices of Participatory Design (Kensing and
Blomberg 1998; Simonsen and Robertson 2012). We have chosen these particular
strategies as they each emphasize a particular aspect of the coupling of
ethnography and design, including (1) the interleaving of work practice study
and design representations, (2) the direct involvement of practitioners in
developing analytic understandings along an extended temporal continuum of
their work and technologies, (3) the iterative evaluation of technology-in-use, (4)
the commitment to long-term engagement between designers and users that
recognizes the inevitability of design-in-use, and (5) the positioning of design
intervention as a necessary and equal partner in understanding the present and
imagining the future.
5.1.1. Work practice oriented design
A group of anthropologists and computer scientists working in the area of Work
Practice and Technology at Xerox PARC explored the integration of ethnography
and participatory design in their efforts to reconceptualize and restructure how
work and technology design were undertaken (Suchman et al. 1999; Blomberg et
al. 1996; Trigg et al. 1999). Their work practice oriented design projects in a
variety of settings integrated studies of specic worksites with cooperative
development of prototype systems in order to intervene into the processes of
professional technology production (Blomberg et al. 1996). Suchman and Trigg
(1991) describe a joint enterprise where the three perspectives of research, design,
and practice are linked and where the recognition of workers, researchers, and
designerssituated locations and partial knowledges require ongoing collabora-
tions. They stress that the perspectives are not absolute, xed positions, but
relative to each other, often requiring participants to move between perspectives
(ibid, pp. 8586). As a response to the debate regarding ethnographys descriptive
here and nowapproach versus the prescriptive and interventionist stance of
design, they proposed that innovation is an imagination of what could be, based
396 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
in knowledge of what is, arguing that awareness of the current context is a
resource for proposing meaningful change (Suchman et al. 1999). To disrupt the
staged, sequential approach of rst describing the present state and then
proposing a prospective state, they argue for interleaving studies of current
practice with interventions, coupled with a case-based prototype approach that
involve[s] cycling among studies of work, codesign, and user experience with
mock-ups and prototypes of new technologies[where] work practice studies
[are] embedded in design activities, whereas design efforts contribute to work
analysis(Blomberg et al. 1996, p. 240). These strategies for embedding work
practice studies with design and vise versa continue to inform allied research
programs (cf. Szymanski and Whalen 2011).
5.1.2. Increasing sensitivity towards work practice in design
Under the title of Increasing sensitivity towards everyday work practice in
designKarasti explores the integration of ethnographic studies of work and
participatory design in healthcare settings (Karasti 1997,2001a,b). This
exploration began by the researcher reecting on her role as interdisciplinary
researcher and her positioning as participant observer. During longitudinal
eldwork studying work practices and the unfolding of endogenous technology
procurement and implementation processes she reectively became a participant
interventionistand used this positioning for organizing workshops (Karasti 2001b)
that intervened in these processes. Longitudinal eldwork allowed practitioners to
gain analytic sensibilities towards their own work and technology use via
stimulated recall interviews. These sensibilities were employed later in the
multiparty video-based workshops (Karasti 2001a,b) which extended the
temporal horizon of the here and nowcollaborative activities. Furthermore,
the analysis and juxtaposition of work with traditional lm-based and new digital
imaging system enabled the evaluation and (re)design of the future system. Co-
creating shared understandings of these work contexts with different technology
futures allowed the participants to move along an extended temporal continuum
and make use of its temporal qualities for ongoing analysis, evaluation,
envisioning, and (re)design of both work practices and system possibilities.
5.1.3. Bricolage, grounded imaging and forcing the future
A group of (mainly) Lancaster University based sociologists and participatory
designers from Aarhus University explored crossing boundaries between
technology production and use in a series of research projects (Shapiro et al. 1996;
Büscher and Mogensen 1997; Büscher et al. 2001b; Büscher et al. 2004). In
bringing together system design, work analysis, and user experience, they
emphasized an iterative approach and evaluation of technology-in-use and argued
for the necessity to use combinations of various methods, such as bricolage,
grounded imagination, prototyping experiments in-situ, and future laboratories
(Büscher et al. 2004). Bricolage as a design approach is offered as a means of
397Ethnography in CSCW
realizing work affording ensembles of technologies, practices, and procedures
(Shapiro et al. 1996). It positions interventions at a number of levels which
include technological embedding within the workplace and making technologies
usable. Grounded imagining is argued to bridge the gap between the dual aspects
of practice and imagination wherein researchers need to anticipate and design for
future practice whilst remaining groundedin an inescapably and continuously
changing environment(Büscher et al. 2004, p.193). Relying on succession of
situated experimentationthe future is confronted through continuing cycles of
design and work practice revisions. The design of technical support, the
assessment of outcomes, and the design of further solutions are informed by
working with and between long-term possibilities and current conditions.
5.1.4. Co-realisation
Co-realisation is an orientation to technology production that developed out of a
principled synthesis of ethnomethodology and participatory design(Hartswood
et al. 2002, p. 9). It starts from the observation that the full implications of a new
system for work practices cannot be grasped by studying the work as it is now,
but will only be revealed in and through the systems subsequent use. It positions
ethnography, design, and work practice in ongoing relation by 1) committing to
long-term, direct engagement between designers and users and 2) moving the
locus of design and development activities into workplace settings where the new
technologies will be used. The key issue for design is supporting design-in-use
(Henderson and Kyng 1991), recognizing that the information technologies and
work practices co-evolve over time and that new technical artifacts require
effective conguration and integration with work practices. Co-realization
promotes long-term immersion in the eld site and aims to create a shared
practice between users and designers that is grounded in the experiences of users,
and where users drive the process (Hartswood et al. 2002; Voss 2006). Co-
realization insists on maintaining a dialogue between users and designers which
requires co-realizers’‘being therein the workplace, becoming a member of the
setting, and acquiring familiarity with membersknowledge and mundane
competencies. Thus, it envisages design as a longitudinal process that fosters
accountability and capitalizes on an ethnographic engagement with work practice
(Voss et al. 2009b, p. 52).
5.1.5. Design ethnography
Researchers primarily in Denmark have been developing a strategy for
integrating design and ethnography into a single movementwhere they argue
that we ‘… abandon the idea that the eld of use is a place to visit and to be
known, and that the design studio is a privileged place for invention…’ so we can
‘…unleash a greater potential of combining anthropology and design(Halse et
al. 2010, p. 15). Through a series of case studies they argue for an interventionist
design research approach that integrates participatory design with a critical mode
398 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
of inquiry, drawing on actor network theory (ANT) to question distinctions
between subject and object in the context of ethnographic inquiry. They argue
that interventions open new ways of conceiving the worldand enable a deeper
integration of design and anthropology (Halse 2008). Interventions are positioned
‘… in-between what is already there and what is emerging as a possible future
(Andersen et al. 2011, p. 8). The interventionist experiment not only proposes a
relevant solutionto a practical problem, but also enables the researchers to
deepen their understanding of the complexities of the domain of their research
and project a future reality(ibid).
In a related vein, proponents of the Design Anthropological Innovation Model
(DAIM) argue that ‘… it is not enough for each expert [e.g. ethnographer,
designer] to bring her side of the story to the others. These horizons must actively
be brought together in concrete terms to really take the full synergetic effect
(Halse et al. 2010, p. 14). Building on earlier work by Buur and his colleagues
(Buur et al. 2000; Buur and Bødker 2000) where ethnographicvideo is used as
design material they develop a hybrid practice between ethnography and design
where imagining the future is not separated from understanding the present.
The above strategies have challenged many of the customary boundaries
between ethnography and design. In their practical attempts to get the work done
collaboratively with the participants and given the expertise and resources
available within their particular, situated settings; these researchers have created a
variety of socio-material contexts where the relations between ethnography and
design are reimagined. They do not argue for a singular relation to design, but a
varied contribution shaped by the everyday realitiesof the sites of design and
intervention, informed by the possibilities of participation given local contingen-
cies, and iteratively allied with both observation and intervention, and the source
and outcome of design. The strategies convey a growing awareness of the
benets of developing more longitudinal and iterative approaches for connecting
ethnography and design. However, there is still much work to do in exploring
how to connect ethnography and design in spatially and temporally extended
settings and for emerging arenas of CSCW.
5.2. Ethnographic studies unencumbered by design
Ethnography unencumbered by design has been primarily concerned with
understanding social phenomena via detailed, analytic descriptions of work
practice and with exploring conceptual and theoretical issues in the social
sciences (e.g. Bucciarelli 1995; Henderson 1991; Luff et al. 1992,2000; Sharrock
and Anderson 1994; Star and Ruhleder 1994,1996; Suchman 1983; Suchman
and Wynn 1984; Wynn 1979). These studies proceed relatively unfettered by the
problems of design (Anderson 1997). While the studies are designed and
undertaken without a specic design agenda, they may later lay the groundwork
for design oriented projects, for example, studies of air trafc controllers
399Ethnography in CSCW
(Harper et al. 1991), airport ground operations (Suchman 1993), and large-
scale scientic collaborations (Star and Ruhleder 1996).
The inuence of these types of studies on system design has been signicant,
making important theoretical contributions (Anderson 1997; Plowman et al. 1995;
Schmidt 2000,2011b). Some of these studies have also played an important role in
shaping the agenda, concerns, and central questions of CSCW, most recognizably
Suchman (1987). Others have contributed to the conceptual foundation of the eld,
as we have seen in Section 3on The sociality and materiality of work, informing
and contributing to the development of such concepts as situated action, exible
workows, situated awareness, articulation work, invisible work, material resources
for action, and common information spaces. These studies haveover time
incited and inspired design professionals to explore ways these concepts might
inuence and guide in the development of new technologies.
In the current landscape of CSCW, we see the continued relevance and
importance of the innocentethnographies, particularly for the extended and
emerging arenas in CSCW where multi-sited, mobile, and virtual ethnographies
present new challenges. We are seeing some examples of new conceptualizations,
for example, with notions of human infrastructure(Lee et al. 2006) and
infrastructure time(Karasti et al. 2010) in investigations of cyberinfrastructure
and e-research collaborations. As we continue to gain experiences in constructing
and carrying out multi-sited ethnographies, we believe new connections between
ethnography and design will emerge.
6. Whose ethnography?
The role of ethnography in design-oriented elds has been debated since the early
days of CSCW. Beginning with Andersons(1994)Representations and Require-
ments: The value of ethnography in system design where he argues that ethnography
has been misunderstood and often misappropriated in the context of design.
Anderson contends that instead of looking to ethnography to provide descriptions of
work and work settings for the purposes of design, the proper and more powerful role
of ethnography should be analytic, providing designers with new ways of seeing and
understanding human conduct. Button (2000) later makes a similar distinction
between what he calls scenic eldworkand ethnomethodological ethnography.
Anderson further maintains that if designers only want requirements specications
they dont need ethnography to offer views on usersworlds, as any relatively
competent observer can deliver these (scenic) accounts. Anderson states,
This is not to say that getting to know users and their knowledge and practices
is unnecessary or irrelevant or that observational eldwork and impressionistic
reportage can be of no value in this. Far from it! It is simply that you do not need
ethnography to do that; just minimal competency in interactive skills, a
willingness to spend time, and a fair amount ofpatience.(Anderson 1994,p.155)
400 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
While there may be some truth in this argument, Forsythe (1999) rightly
contends that being a competent observer involves a wide range of skills that are
not that easy to acquire, including knowledge of particular theoretical constructs
and ways of seeing. She goes on to caution that important aspects of work are
often deleted (not seen) by observers without training in ethnography, offering as
an example system designers who leave out of their descriptions of work the
informal interactions that take place among colleagues.
Leaving aside the question of what it takes to be a competent ethnographer,
both Anderson and Forsythe are pointing to the fact that interpretive work is
required to develop ethnographic descriptions. As Anderson (1994, p. 155) notes,
The ethnographers eye is always interpretive.It is not enough to simply record
what is seen or heard in a straightforward way. Accounts are informed by the
ethnographers analytic eye and are shaped by frameworks and theories that both
emerge from the dataand build on previous research. Just what is meant by the
interpretive character of ethnography has fueled more recent debates in CSCW
concerning the place of ethnography in CSCW and other design-oriented disciplines.
Confusion concerning the value of ethnographic research in the context of CSCW
can also be attributed to the prevalent view in design-oriented elds that ethnography
is ‘… acorpusofeld techniques for collecting and organizing dataand is a ‘…
shorthand for investigations that are, to some extent, in situ, qualitative, or open-
ended(Dourish 2006, p. 543). Similar to Andersons(1994) argument, Dourish
(2006, p. 542) cautions that reducing ethnography to a set of techniques ‘… may
underestimate, misstate, or misconstrue the goals and mechanisms of ethnographic
investigation.On this view the ethnographer ‘…is a passive instrument, a lens
through which a specimen setting might be examined, with the ethnography
providing an objective representation of that setting(ibid, p. 544).
Dourish (2006) goes on to argue, following Plowman et al. (1995), that
expecting ethnographic studies to deliver implications for designreduces the
value of ethnography and too often results in rather simplistic, gratuitous, and not
very useful design recommendations. As Plowman et al. observe,
Authors of studies
which make a valuable theoretical contribution to CSCW feel
obliged to force design guidelines from their data, resulting in the classic
implications for designsection at the end of a paper.(Plowman et al. 1995, p. 314)
In addition, too close a coupling of ethnographic studies to specic technology
designs, undervalues the contributions these studies can make to future design
considerations (Schmidt 2000,2012). Moreover, evaluating ethnographic studies
based on their implications for design privileges designers as gatekeepersin
deciding on the merit of the research (ibid). Schmidts caution is not the rst time
that the politicsof what is considered valuable ethnographic research in the
context of CSCW and other design-oriented discipline has been called into
Plowman et al. (1995) note that most workplace studies in CSCW employ an ethnographic lens.
401Ethnography in CSCW
question. Shapiro (1994) raised the issue when he argued that the strong program
in ethnomethodology might not be tenable in relation to the practical entailments
of design. Arguing for hybrid formsof ethnography, Shapiro reects that, ‘…
when we are concerned with matters in the real world, theoretically-based
critiques are simply not a sound enough basis for rejecting contributions which
might be useful(Shapiro 1994, p. 421).
Even if we agree that ethnography is more than a set of eld techniques for
doing qualitative research and has value beyond providing bulleted lists of
implications for designthere remains a question of what is meant by the call for
analytic and/or interpretive ethnography. Ethnographic research in CSCW has
been deeply inuenced by ethnomethodology, beginning with Suchmans Plans and
Situated Action (1987) and elaborated through studies by researchers associated with
Lancaster University (e.g. Bentley et al 1992;Hughesetal.1992,1994a;Randallet
al. 1995). Ethnomethodology developed in sociology as a counter to prevailing ways
of describing social life and institutions (e.g. Garnkel 1967). Unlike traditional
sociology where sociological categories (e.g. gender, class, power, religion) are used
to describe and explain phenomena, ethnomethodology makes visible participants
situated methods for creating the coherence of phenomena. The analytic task for
ethnomethodology is to ‘…explicate and describe the membersmethods that could
have been used to produce what happened in the way that it did(Benson and
Hughes 1991,p.132).
Some of those working within the ethnomethodological tradition have
expressed concern that CSCW and other design-oriented elds have failed to
realize the consequences of what they describe as a move away from
ethnomethodological ethnography (Crabtree et al. 2009). They offer as evidence
for this turn the increasing number of ethnographic studies that are informed by
other social science traditions, most notably interpretive anthropology and critical
studies. As Bell et al. (2003, p. 1063) emphasize, [c]ritical readings of the social
context of use and the codication of meaning can generate innovative
suggestions for and approaches to design problems.Bell et al. draw on the
highly inuential work of Geertz (1973) who argues that the ethnographers
analytic purchase is as an interpreter of the symbols of a culture. However, Geertz
cautions that to divorce interpretation ‘…from what happensfrom what, in this
time or that place, specic people say, what they do, what is done to them, from
the whole vast business of the worldis to divorce it from its application and
render it vacant(ibid, p. 18). Not unlike ethnomethodology, interpretive
ethnography makes a strong commitment to what is observable and contestable.
Geertz writes (ibid, p. 29), to commit oneself to an interpretive approach to
the study of [culture] is to commit oneself to a view of ethnographic assertion as,
to borrow W. B. Gallies by now famous phrase, essentially contestable.”’
While Anderson (1994), working within an ethnomethodological tradition,
argues that analytic ethnography is always interpretive, it is unlikely most
ethnomethodologists would agree, at least in the Geertzian notion of interpretation.
402 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
Clearly Crabtree et al. (2009), in their critique of critical studies, were contrasting
ethnomethodology with those approaches that adopted an interpretive lens. In fact
Garnkel, who is regarded as the founder of ethnomethodology as a eld of inquiry
in sociology, claims,
Ethnomethodology is not in the business of interpreting signs. It is not an
interpretive enterprise. Enacted local practices are not texts which symbolize
meaningsor events. They are in detail identical with themselves. The
witnessably recurrent details of ordinary everyday practices constitute their
own reality. They are studied in their unmediated details not as signed
enterprises.(Garnkel 1996, p. 8, italics added)
In what sense ethnography is an interpretive endeavor is at the heart of the
recent controversies concerning the relation of criticalethnography to CSCW
and other design-oriented elds.
Crabtree et al. (2009) contrast ethnomethodological ethnography that has ‘…
largely focused on detailed empirical studies of what people do and how they
organize action and interaction in particular settings of relevance to designwith
ethnography that ‘… engage[s] designers instead in a critical dialogue based on
cultural interpretations of everyday settings, activities, and artefacts(ibid, p. 880,
italics added). In this sense ethnomethodology disavows the role of the researcher as
an interpreter of signs, while asserting an analytic role for ethnomethodology
wherein the structuring and organization of action and interaction are described.
Conversely interpretive ethnography is interested in the meanings that are ascribed to
things in the world, while acknowledging that those interpretations, by actors and
researchers alike, are shaped by their particular positionality. While these differences
are epistemological at their core, the debate in CSCW has mainly centered on the
efcacy of the two approaches for design. Crabtree et al. (ibid) contend that the
critical readings in the end will prove less valuable for design.
Confounding the confusion over what is considered properethnography in
the context of CSCW and design more broadly is an unfortunate positioning of
criticalor interpretiveethnography as more appropriate for studying ludic,
domestic, and consumer activities (Bell et al. 2003) whereas ethnomethodological
ethnography is associated with workplace studies where design emphasis often is
placed on productivity and efciency (Schmidt 2011a). As Schmidt writes in
contrasting ludic activities with work, That is, central to the concept of work, the
primary cases of work designate activities that are considered necessary or
useful, either in terms of the concrete fruits of the labor (food, clothing, timber,
tools, machines) or in terms of some other reward (recognition, salary) (ibid, 361).
Bell et al. further argue that ‘… current understanding of user needs analysis,
derived from the world of work is not adequate to this new design challenge
asserting that the social and cultural impact of new technologies ‘… are
particularly relevant to the home, where technologies are situated or embedded
within an ecology that is rich with meaning and nuance(2003, p. 1062). While
403Ethnography in CSCW
arguments of efciency and productivity may seem more relevant to the
workplace, notwithstanding the ndings of the study of Silicon Valley families
by Darrah et al. (2007), we agree with Crabtree and others that there is no apriori
reason to expect that critical studies or interpretive ethnography are more
appropriate to non-work contexts, nor that ethnomethodological ethnography is
more applicable to work contexts. But we do contest Crabtree et al.s implication
that interpretive ethnography is not focused on detailed empirical studies of what
people do and how they organize action and interaction in particular settings
(2009, p. 880). To the contrary, as Geertz (1973) argues, ethnography is always
tied to the details of the lived experiences of the people studied.
While beyond the scope of this article, also confounding the debate
regarding whose ethnography is best aligned with CSCWs agenda is the
concern with the ways in which ethnographic accounts can be characterized as
Distancing themselves from claims to being scientic,
Bell et al. (2005), referring to their use of the literary technique of
defamiliarization, state that it is ‘… explicitly not a scienticmethodand
assert that in this context the value of ethnography is not to better understand
target users and their practices [in a scienticway]but to provide alternative
viewpoints(p. 154). The scientic veracity of the accounts is not on offer.
Instead the interest is in providing designers with alternative ways of
understanding a phenomenon that are shaped by their critical and alternative
readings of the situation.
Ethnomethodology insists on strong linkages between ethnographic accounts
and what is observable and reportable and in this sense displays a distinctively
empiricist and inductive rhetoric (Atkinson 1988). As Randall et al. (2001, p. 40)
argue, ‘… what justication we have for arguing that any particular thing is
going onshould be evident in the data and open for inspection.Perhaps on this
point ethnomethodological and interpretive ethnography can agree. Accounts
must be tied to what is observable and reportable and therefore they are
contestable. As Geertz (1973, p. 29) observes, ‘… progress is marked less by a
perfection of consensus than by a renement of debate.
We have no intention of resolving these fundamental epistemological debates
and we fully expect (and hope) they will continue in CSCW. In fact we believe
they are important in charting the role of ethnography in CSCW in the years to
come. However, we do not concur with those who suggest newcritical
ethnographic approaches do not provide a valuable contribution to CSCW, and
not the least with regard to CSCWs design agenda. On the contrary, we believe
as the saying goes the proof is in the eatingand these studies have engaged
design(ers) in ways that have opened up design possibilities and guided design
agendas in support of collaborative practices.
Randall et al. (2001) makes a similar argument in response to Nardis(1996) critique of situated action.
404 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
So returning to the question of what is ethnography good for, we offer these
multiple articulations that reect possibilities espoused by researchers in the eld.
In summary, the advantage of applying ethnographic methodslies in the
sensitisingthey promote to the real-world character of activities in context and,
consequently, in the opportunity to ensure system development resonates with the
circumstances of systems use. In attempting not only to document or describe
activities but to explicate (or make observable) their real-world organisation,
ethnography seeks to answer what might be regarded as an essential question in
design: what to automate and what to leave to human skill, competence,
judgment, experience and expertise.(Crabtree et al. 2000,p.667)
Rather than ethnography, or even eldwork itself, it is the explication of
membersknowledgewhat people have to know to do work, and how that
knowledge is deployed in the ordering and organisation of workthat
provides the key to understanding the contribution of sociology to engineering
and design.(Button 2000, p. 319)
Critical approaches to technology design are therefore of both practical and
political importance in nd[ing] strategies to identify and break out of the
central metaphors dominating current domestic information appliance design.
(Bell et al. 2005, p. 149)
We do not advocate settling on a single properrendering of ethnography for
CSCW and we do not provide a straightforward way to mitigate fundamental
disagreements. But we do argue that CSCW should continue to distinguish
analytic and interpretive ethnography from studies that are content with
providing reports from the eldor lists of design implications.By taking
this ecumenical position we are not excusing badethnography, instead we
are suggesting that our criteria for evaluation needs to include consideration
of the claims being made for the value of the ethnographic account and then
turn our critical eye to assessing their success.
7. The next 25 years
As we reect on the last 25 years of CSCW we ask what challenges recent
transitions in CSCW pose for ethnography. It is perhaps clear that there is a need
for more conceptually synthetic work that draws on an ever widening range of
ethnographic studies coupled with new technology contexts. In a similar vein to
what has been done with the concept of coordination(Ackerman et al. 2008;
Schmidt 2011b), efforts should be undertaken to synthesize research on key
concepts in CSCW, for example, concepts of awareness, invisible work, and
exible workows. In addition, we will most likely need to develop new concepts
to help us understand collaboration in organizationally complex, widely
distributed, temporally expanded, and large scale settings.
405Ethnography in CSCW
Acknowledging that CSCW is a research eld rmly grounded in ethnographic
studies of collaborative activities, we see a need for greater attention to denitions
of the eld site, including how we construct multi-sited ethnographies. This will be
key to our ability to address emerging developments in CSCW, such as the blurring
of the boundaries between work, community, and domestic life; the extensibility of
the eld site to encompass globally distributed partner organizations; the
increasingly loose coupling of people to their workplaces and co-workers; the
accretion of layers of technology in support of nearly all aspects of peoples lives;
and the global scale of activities in for example political activism that have emerged
in recent years. While this is a great challenge for future work, it is vital for our ability
to advance methodological as well as analytical frameworks required to support the
call for more conceptually oriented and synthetic research.
In addition, how we conceptualize the sites of ethnographic research will
contribute to new ways of connecting ethnography and design,an essential
element of CSCW. For most of the last 25 years we have framed the design
question as rather bounded, tied to the local requirementsof the work. However,
as CSCW has broadened its scope, both temporally and spatially, assumptions
about users and context are more difcult to maintain. As Lindtner et al. (2011,p.1)
remark, ‘… we lack conceptual tools for understanding these complex webs of
multi-sited technology use and design.
Our approaches for integrating ethnography and design will have to develop as
we nd ourselves adapting our methods to become more agile, itinerant,
emergent, and attentive (Hine 2007, p. 669). Monteiro et al. (forthcoming) have
suggested a constructive alternativeto CSCW design, noting that design has
often been assumed to be a relatively local activity in CSCW. They argue for ‘…
analytical tools for capturing how technologies are shaped across multiple spaces
and timeframes…’ and for ‘… concepts for informing infrastructure design of
key design qualities(ibid, pp. 2223). We believe that multi-sited ethnographies not
only allow for studying practices of technology production and use that are
distributed in time and space, but also for design that stretches out over temporal and
spatial horizons (e.g. Karasti et al. 2010). In this we encourage more integrative
ways of connecting ethnography and design.
As ethnography is being interleaved with design in more complex and varied
ways, new questions are raised about how to support interdisciplinary
collaboration and learning. Researchers and designers are nding themselves in
new terrains and unaccustomed positions with respect to the subjectsof study
and to the design of the sociotechnical systems in focus. This argues for increased
exibility (at times interchangeability) in roles vis-à-vis the dual ambitions of
theorizingabout the organization, including the structuring of cooperative activity
and participatingin shaping future (design) possibilities. Taken together this
suggests there is value in greater reexivity in how we see ourselves and dene the
aspirations of CSCW going forward (Karasti 2001b; Voss 2006;Vossetal.2009a;
Simonsen et al. 2010; Wagner et al. 2010; Andersen et al. 2011).
406 Jeanette Blomberg and Helena Karasti
Finally, we believe there is ample room for contributions from people with diverse
backgrounds, theoretical and methodological commitments, and practical entail-
ments. We need to push each other to critically evaluate our assumptions, assess the
limitations of our approaches, and look for ways to benet from each othersefforts.
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